- Laura Plitt
- BBC News World
Typical. There are things that you don’t value until you lose them.
And one of those that were lost, at least temporarily during the pandemic, and many of us began to miss, is what is known in English as small talk.
Are those conversations casual that we hang out with strangers or people we barely know by sight, in line for the bus, at the grocery store, in the park walking the dog or at the office printer, and that are about … nothingness itself.
Even those who say they hate these banal exchanges – which in the UK revolve mostly around the weather – admitted during the lockdown feeling sorry for their absence.
Why do we need them? What role do these conversations really play in our well-being?
Connected to the world
This type of interaction “makes us good humor. That’s partly because it helps us feel connected with other people, and that is something really important for human beings, “says Gillian Sandstrom, a psychology professor at the University of Essex, in the United Kingdom, who has investigated the impact of weak relationships (as opposed to deep ties) in people.
“We need to feel that we are part of a group and part of something bigger“, Add.
Talking about trivia with strangers makes us feel like we can “trust people and that the world in general is a safe place, just like our community.”
But in addition to those benefits, says the expert, they help us learn new things.
“We don’t learn much from the people who are closest to us, because somehow we know what they know, so ironically, we acquire more new information from acquaintances and strangers than from those who are closest.”
The lack of these encounters during lockdowns made us miss that sense of novelty, emphasizes Sandstrom.
Those conversations “bring something new and unpredictable to our life. When we talk to a stranger we don’t know which direction the conversation will take or what we are going to talk about. That can be a bit scary, and it’s one of the reasons people avoid talking to strangers. ”
“But that unpredictability is also one of the great pleasures he has,” he says.
You may have also noticed that when one is not in a good mood, it does not tend to show it in one of these casual encounters.
This is because we try to present our best side to those who do not know us well, since we want the exchange to be successful.
“By acting like we’re in a good mood, this ends up making us feel better,” explains Sandtrom, who believes that all of these effects “son cumulative“.
Not only do they help make us feel more comfortable on a personal level, but these superficial talks allow us to grow and establish ourselves in the work environment.
They are fundamental “for the collaboration and to generate confidence“says Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk (“The delicate art of small talk”).
“Let’s pretend you’re my boss and you delegate work to me. If every time we interact you give me tasks and don’t even ask me how I’m doing, how is my weekend, etc., if you don’t do anything to start a casual conversation, I’m not going to have no connection to you, “says Fine.
And that will eventually make one look for a job where they care about one or pay more, for example.
“The superficial conversations generate connection and that makes people worry about things.”
On the other hand, a study mentioned by Sandstrom found that people who have weaker ties, that is, better known at work, are considered more creative by their supervisors.
“That is linked to the idea that you have access to more types of information: if you talk to people from different departments in your company, you may learn a little more and organize things differently than someone who only talks to them. three people “, argues the psychologist from the University of Essex.
And while in some cultures it is more common than in others, the vast majority participate in these kinds of rituals.
About a century ago, the father of social anthropology, the Polish-British Bronislaw Malinowski, argued that the small talkwas not from exclusive domain of western societies and that its objective was not to communicate ideas but to fulfill a social function: establish personal ties.
Although the subject matter —as well as the norms about what is acceptable and what is not— varies according to the culture and region of the world in question.
Thus, while in the United Kingdom, as we mentioned before, commenting on the weather conditions is a classic, in other countries it is common to start a conversation about the complaint (how long does the bus take to arrive, how bad the service is in this establishment, etc. ).
Not everyone feels like a fish in water when it comes to engaging in this type of dialogue with people outside of their inner circle.
I remember a friend who used to look carefully through the peephole and stick her ear to the door of her house before going out to avoid crossing her neighbors.
Most of the time, those who shy away from these connections do not do so due to a lack of interest in the other.
For many it is a matter of personality: approaching others generates anxiety because they fear a negative reaction.
But also, they avoid it simply because they don’t know how to do it.
“Unless you were born with this gift and it comes naturally, most don’t do it well,” Fine explains.
However, it is a skill that can be acquired by observing and above all, with the practice.
Tips for Small Conversations…
The first thing to remember is that depends on one Start a conversation.
“You can’t expect someone to talk to you at a party or at a school event. You have to be the one who is willing to take the risk,” says Fine.
Unless you are at a business conference, don’t ask “what do you do?”
“It’s better to ask ‘what’s keeping you busy?’ and the person can answer whatever they want to tell you. ”
“The key is show interest in such a way that the other person gives you a real answer that requires more than one word as an answer, “says the expert in the art of conversation.
For example: instead of “how was your weekend?”, Which can be answered simply with “good, thank you”, you can say: “Tell me the most entertaining thing that happened to you on the weekend.”
Another tool available is what was Fine called information “free“.
If you are in a social gathering, the other person will surely know the host just like you: you can ask how they know each other, for example.
If you participate in an event as a volunteer, you can ask another volunteer how they got involved with that organization.
You should avoid especially the kinds of questions that kill the conversation.
In situations where you don’t really know the person, don’t ask questions that you don’t know the answer to, Fine recommends.
That is, it is better to ask “what is new in your life?”, Instead of something about her husband whom you saw a year ago, because you do not know if they are still together or not, for example.
And the same about work: don’t assume he’s still in the same job.
“It is much better to ask him ‘tell me the news of your work life’, since the other person will tell you whatever they want to tell you on the subject.”
Another recommendation that Fine makes is that don’t compete when you talk, something that many of us do without even realizing it.
That is, if someone tells you how bad it felt working alone from home during the pandemic, do not answer that it was worse for you because you also had the children at home.
It is much better to answer: “I’m sorry it was so difficult for you. Can you see the light at the end of the tunnel?”
… and to get out of them without being rude
Finally, ending a conversation is as important as starting it, especially if we do not want to get caught up in a talk that seems to have no end, but we do not want to offend or hurt the feelings of our interlocutor.
Fine recommends indicating that the conversation is about to end by displaying what he calls a “White flag”, in reference to the one used in motor racing to indicate to the driver that he has one last lap left.
And it gives example sentences: “Tell me one last thing before I go”, or “I wanted to ask you one last question”, or “I have to go but explain this to me”, and so on.
Another important point, says Fine, is that if you say that you are leaving the event for something, do it.
“If you just told someone: it was very nice talking to you but I am desperate to go buy me a coffee and then on the way to the cafeteria you run into another person and your interlocutor sees how you stay talking long and hard with her, you are going to offend their feelings and burn bridges. ”
“Just tell this new person that you are going to buy coffee and have him accompany you, or that you buy coffee and you will be back.”
They are all very simple rules that we can put into practice to connect more easily with the people around us, and, after all, feel better.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.